Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Gardening Angel

The last house Alan and I owned in Orlando, Florida was in a beautiful community called Avalon Park. Avalon Parks sits to the east of the city and has it's own self-contained town center, grocery store, restaurants, schools, parks and town festivals. The community contains thousands of new homes, condos, townhomes and apartments. There are strict rules for keeping your house and yard up to community standards. They encourage this by presenting the prestigious "Yard of the Month" award, given to the one home with the most exceptional lawn and landscaping. Besides being an enormous honor, the recipient of the award also receives a gift certificate to one of the town's eating establishments and, most importantly, gets a really cool "YARD OF THE MONTH" sign stuck in their yard for a full thirty days!

So, you can imagine my extreme delight the day I opened the door to see a man standing on my porch holding the coveted sign. He said in a monotoned mumble "Ah...yeah. You won yard of the month. Where do you want me to put the sign?" OK, have you ever watched The Price is Right when one of those really large women wins at Plinko and then proceeds to maul poor Bob Barker in a jumping, hugging, shouting, screaming frenzy? Multiply that by TEN, and you will have my reaction to this unlucky man's inquiry!! If there had been TV cameras pointed in my direction (come to think of it, I'm a little shocked there were NONE!!), I would have cradled that sign in my arms like an Oscar and made a long, orchestra-playing-to-hurry-me-to-finish speech. In it, I would've said that this award is not mine alone. I share it with my teacher and silent friend, Farmer Man. Here is his story...

It all started when Alan and I moved into our first home in Orlando. We purchased a tiny plot in a burgeoning new community, picked out our floor plans and counter tops and moved into our little suburban heaven. I loved it! I loved the trick-or-treaters, the grilling on the back porch, the pool we eventually added, all the things that were unimaginable when I lived in a tiny apartment on thirtieth street in NYC.

The only element I didn't quite grasp in our new suburban life was the yard. The home builders had planted a variety of shrubs and ornamental grasses around the place, I thought they looked fine. I didn't know the names of any of them, but I wasn't too worried about it. I figured I'd get the hose out every week or so and give them a good squirt. Piece of cake. It's not like everything was just going to die on me if I neglected it.

So, shortly after everything died on me, I realized I had no idea what I was doing yard-wise. I perused a few books at Barnes and Noble pertaining to Florida gardening, but right at about paragraph two where they went into intense detail about soil PH levels and frost zones, my brain would cramp-up and I'd return the book to it's shelf. But I knew I had to do something.

That's about the time I started noticing my neighbor's yard. To say his landscape was lush would be like calling The Grand Canyon a large pothole. It was Eden. There were three large Bougainvillea bushes in the middle of the yard that each sported blooms of varying shades of crimson and fuschia. Every time a breeze passed by it would send those electric pink and red blooms cascading lazily across my driveway. Closer to the house were his rose bushes, with multi-colored blooms the size of small children. Even his boring old shrubs were green and perfect, trimmed to manicured perfection.

All this was under the gentle, loving care of one man. Picture a slight, fit, blue-jeaned Puerto Rican man in his early sixties with a face the texture of worn leather. He had bright, kind, blue eyes that were always squinting as he went about his landscaping work. And he always, always wore a straw, amish-style hat on his head. We didn't know his name right away, so his hat inspired us to give him the clever, clever name of "Farmer Man." He didn't speak a word of english, so it wasn't until a bilingual neighbor eventually introduced us that we learned his real name, Angel.

Farmer Man spent hours in that yard. It wasn't at all unusual for us to leave the house early in the morning, wave to him as he sat hunched over one of his plants, then return late that night and still see him out there, pulling weeds or trimming hedges. He didn't use any electric equipment, only his hands and simple garden tools. He did his edging on his hands and knees, hacking away at the thick St. Augustine grass with a two foot machete!

I became Farmer Man's stalker! I started paying close attention to the things he was doing in the yard, reading the writing on the bags he pulled out of his trunk and emptied onto his flower beds. There were things like "Top soil," "Manure," and "Compost." I raced out and got the same stuff. When he applied it, so did I. When he determined that it was late February and time to trim the crepe myrtle, so did I. And guess what? My yard slowly came to life! Guess what else? So did I! With each new bloom that sprung open in my yard, I was discovering a brand new passion growing inside ME!! I was really enjoying myself! What had once been a chore was now a real joy. I couldn't wait to get outside on my days off and nurture my plants. I'd look over at Farmer Man and think, "I get it!!"

It wasn't long before I was joining Farmer Man in his marathon landscaping days. We never played the radio or attached an Ipod to our ears. We preferred the sweet sound of all the singing birds around us. Then I discovered other things that were happening: when you spend hours in your front yard, you meet all the neighborhood children who eventually ride by on their bikes, and have great conversations with neighbors walking by with their dogs, all the things you completely miss if you're inside watching TV.

I eventually extended my flower beds and added more shepherd's hooks and potted plants. Hey, it was no Angel's Eden, but I was really proud of it! Farmer man and I never spoke, but we had a fantastic silent relationship. I'd step outside with my watering can and gardening gloves and see him already bent over one of his precious rose bushes. I'd wait until he looked up and we'd give each other a friendly smile, nod and wave, then get to work. Sometimes there'd be a little game of charades consisting of pointing at the sky, then throwing the head back and arms out as if to say, "What a gorgeous day!" The other would nod and agree, but that was all we had time for, the flowers were waiting! Once, on my only day off that week, I was on the side of the house planting some impatiens when the sky opened up and sent down an enormous amount of rain. I knew this was my only chance to get those flowers in the ground, so I kept working. I finished about a half an hour later, soaked to the skin, and was walking around to the front when I saw him. There was Farmer man, water pouring down off the rim of his straw hat, pruning his rose bush. We looked at one other, pointed, and laughed, comrades in our insane passion!!

After eight years, Alan and I left that house and moved to our new home in Avalon Park. The first thing I did once the boxes were unpacked was grab my compost and topsoil and head out front. But I have to admit, it wasn't the same. I missed seeing my Gardening Angel in his blue jeans and straw hat. I hate that I never thanked him properly for teaching me so much and introducing me to a world I love so completely.

Then a weird thing started happening after we'd been in our new home for a few months. Every time I went out to spray Miracle-Gro on my flowers, there was my neighbor, George, doing the same. When it was late February and time to trim the crepe myrtles, there was George, trimming away, same as me. One day, George came across the street and said, exasperated, "OK, I've done EVERYTHING you've done for the past several months, why doesn't my yard look like YOURS?" I laughed, gave him a few suggestions, then turned and walked inside. I found Alan in his office in front of his computer. He looked up at me as I stood in the doorway, huge smile plastered across my face. "Hey, Honey," I told him happily, "Guess what? I'm FARMER MAN!!"

Thanks for reading!


Unknown said...


Faith said...

We Really, Really, miss your beautiful yard. You are "Farmer Joan" to me!!!

A woman in transition... said...

It's almost 3:30 in the morning here in North Mississippi. My very young, very demanding sons will be up in a few hours and I should be sleeping and garnering the strength I'm going to need to deal with them tomorrow. (Today.) Yet, here I am, reading your blogs. I've skipped around and read several of them over the last hour or so (out of order and without rhyme or reason) and I can safely say that I'm in love with your writing. Your heart just pours on to the page. This blog about your gardening Angel was my favorite so far. Can't wait to read more from you!

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